The Ethical Epicure: Books that serve up insight about what’s on your plate

When I was a teenager, a family friend gave me a copy of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet one Christmas. The ideas Lappé presented — among them the simple notion that what we choose to eat has both personal and social significance — were revelations to me. That gift forever changed the way I thought about food and to this day influences what I choose to put on my plate.

Several intriguing, thought-provoking books about “thoughtful eating” have been published this year, any of which could make an ideal gift for the foodies, locavores, and both fledgling and veteran vegetarians on your list — or anyone you know interested in making well-considered choices about what to have for dinner.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food (W.W. Norton & Co.), is a passionate advocate for a strict vegan diet. Vegans will appreciate his book, though it may not convert dedicated omnivores.

For vegans and vegetarians alike, there’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (Little, Brown), which chronicles the author’s own carnivory and vegetarianism. Though his writing is lively, earnest and immensely personal — mixing journalism with anecdotes and philosophical ramblings — there’s a self-righteousness here that could make fence-sitting vegetarians leap from their post to the pasture on one side or the other. But it’s hard to argue with his suggestion that we’d all do well to take “moral inventory” of our eating habits.

In 2006, journalist Michael Pollan explored the origins of the foods we Americans eat; the ethical, ecological and political issues involved in their production; and the consequences to our health and the environment when we choose them. His work has been updated and made youth-friendly in a new edition, The Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids: The Secrets Behind What You Eat (Dial). The target audience is 8- to 12-year-olds, though it might also appeal to adult readers turned off by drier nutrition- and environment-oriented tomes.

Fans of the documentary of the same name will dig right into Food Inc.: A Participant Guide: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer — And What You Can Do About It (PublicAffairs). This series of essays is designed to accompany the film and pick up where it left off, encouraging readers to learn more about the issues raised in the film and what they can do to help.

For the dedicated carnivores, especially the ones interested in “old-fashioned” humane agriculture, try Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (William Morrow). Author Nicolette Hahn Niman is an environmental lawyer, animal-rights activist, and wife of Bill Niman, the founder of Niman Ranch. She discusses disease, waste disposal, and the hidden costs of factory farming accrued by environmental cleanup. She also stirs the pot by making the case that consumption of nonindustrial meat and being environmentally friendly aren’t necessarily at odds. (Whether you agree or not, you have to admit that Righteous Porkchop is a pretty fantastic title.)

Anthropology and eating cross paths in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books) by Richard Wrangham. Professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, Wrangham insists, “Cooked food does many … things. It makes our food safer … reduces spoilage. … (It) gave the first cooks biological advantages” — one of which was that energy devoted to digestion could be redirected to our brains. Lest vegetarians think he’s saying we’re carnivores at heart, note that he adds, “Even vegetarians thrive on cooked diets. We are cooks more than carnivores.” These ideas and others will give readers plenty to chew on.

Some of us take pleasure in knowing where our food comes from and connecting with it by growing, cooking, or at least assembling it ourselves. In Farm City, Novella Carpenter chronicles her experience as an urban farmer in the Bay Area. She expanded her backyard vegetable garden to include experiments with beekeeping and raising (and, yes, slaughtering) poultry, pigs and other animals.

On a lighter note, locavores and anyone interested in American culinary roots will appreciate The Food of a Younger Land: A Portrait of American Food — Before the National Highway System, Before Chain Restaurants, and Before Frozen Food, When the Nation’s Food Was Seasonal (Riverhead). Mark Kurlansky assembled works from the Federal Writers Projects about 1930s America and its people, food and culture. This collection, which includes pieces from such notables as Eudora Welty and Zora Neale Hurston, offers our fast-food nation a refreshing reminder of our all-but-lost rural and regional foods.

One caveat about giving these books as gifts. The way I see it, eating, like religion and political affiliation, is an intensely personal issue. Give these books out of generosity and good will, not because you aim to convert someone or serve up an extra helping of guilt. Maybe your gift will open someone’s eyes, or maybe it will spark a lively debate, but if nothing else, it’s likely to make them stop and think about what they eat. And after all, it’s the thought that counts.